July 2009

The Gourmet Ghetto at Berkeley

With this post I am christening my new food blog! It is really just a place for me to talk about food exclusively, since my personal blog often featured various topics on eating and travel eating. What you see below this post are my past food-related writings.

What better topic to discuss for this first post than my recent trip to Berkeley. During this short, impromptu trip up to the Bay area, my cousins and I decided to make sure we ate at all the good and popular spots. These include The Cheeseboard Pizza Collective, La Note, wine from a shop in a municipal building, and of course, your obligatory overpriced cupcake.

What I didn’t realize while discovering these places, is that these fine eateries are located along Shattuck Ave., in an enclave known as the “Gourmet Ghetto.” It is mostly popular for Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse and co-op specialty food stores.

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One place that immediately stuck out is the Cheeseboard Collective. In addition to selling really fresh breads (the slim baguette was astonishingly fresh, flaky and perfect), and an impressive choice of cheeses, the Cheeseboard sells fresh-baked pizzas promptly at 4:30 p.m. to waiting customers who claim the Cheeseboard is the king of pizza in California. The wonderful catch is, there is only one type of pizza to be had. If you don’t like spinach on your pizza or you can’t deal with goat cheese, then too bad. I think this is actually more appealing for it opens our minds to what pizza could be.

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An astounding list of choices. A cheese lover’s dream.

On the day we went, we stepped inside the cheese store to ask about the pizza. Realizing that we needed to wait until 4:30, (it was around 2:30 when we walked in), we decided to make do with a wedge of brie and one of the baguettes I mentioned earlier. With these in hand, we walked down Shattuck to side streets that suggested there would be other interesting stores. We were right! I saw a sign that says, “Love at First Bite.” We walked in the cupcake specialty store and indulged ourselves with two cupcakes, priced at $2.50 each. One was lemon blueberry, the other Pretty in Pink, code name for strawberry.



I then asked a lady in a paper shop about any wine shops around. Surely, at a neighborhood where there is a cheese store and upscale cupcakes, there would be a place to buy wine. And there was! She directed us to a wine store just a few steps from where we were. As we approached what looks like an old fire station, we read the sign, East Bay Municipal Utility District. No way could this be a wine store! But we walked in and that was exactly what it was. It is called Vintage Berkeley. My cousin quickly picked up a Malbec ($7.50) and my other cousin picked up a Grenache blend for around $18. We walked out feeling great. We got wine, cheese and cupcakes!

The Malbec, by the way, was remarkably good for the price. That is a wonderful thing about wine shops — the owners choose the good wine for you and all you have to do is pick the style you like and get down on it. Another wine tip is to drink two of the same type (like two reds or two whites. NOT one white and one red) in order to appreciate their contrasting subtleties even more.

Two hours later, having finished both bottles and having devoured the bread and cheese and cupcakes, we decided to venture out and see about that pizza. But before we went back to the Cheeseboard, we made one more stop at the the wine store and bought three more bottles. We felt a little embarrassed because just an hour ago, we were there.


Finally, we ambled our way back to the Cheeseboard. A line zigzagged out of the restaurant annex where they sell the pizza. A chalkboard sign indicated that day’s pizza flavor. It was a pizza with no name but with the following toppings, if my memory serves me right: Fresh white corn, peppers, cilantro, and red onions with a wedge of lime. Only now do I realize it had a Mexican twist. The pizza was very tasty. Not California’s best necessarily, but thoroughly delicious and exciting.

This post is turning out to be longer than I thought it was going to be. But as I started writing, I felt myself being very appreciative of that day, mostly because everything was so delightfully serendipitous. The surrounding north Berkeley neighborhood was as picturesque as it could be, with full foliaged trees, a fresh Bay breeze, people sitting in outdoor cafe tables and people whizzing by in bicycles. Just a simple walk along Shattuck allowed us to make these small and wonderful food discoveries. It proved to me that one does not have to be in Paris to be a flaneur.

The next day, my cousin made sure to take me to her go-to breakfast place whenever she is in Berkeley: La Note. It is also located on Shattuck but closer to the UC Berkeley campus. The waiting line was ghastly but it was worth it.

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The coffee is good, the outdoor patio seating charming, and the menu convincingly French. I ordered Les Oeufs Lucas, or eggs softly scrambled with goat cheese and chives. I think all there is to good breakfast is careful preparation, right down to how well the toast is toasted.

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I also indulged myself to a single lemon gingerbread pancake with poached pears. It was tasty but a tad bit too dense for a pancake. It was more like eating gingerbread than a light fluffy pancake. My cousin ordered the eggs with ratatouille — it was actually the first time I tasted ratatouille and I liked it.


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Again, it was just real wholesome brunch. Nothing fancy but very satisfying.